Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Registration vs. voting

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports today that the rolls of new registered voters in Knox County has swelled by nearly 13,000 people over the last four years, and says the recent turmoil in Knox County Government may be part of the reason for this significant increase:

Michael Fitzgerald, a senior fellow at the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, said some of the upswing may be attributed to new people moving into the county who have always voted and will continue to vote.

"I attribute much more of the increase to the fact that clearly the citizens of this county are paying more attention to county politics and government than any time in recent memory, and they're getting ready to do something about it at the polls," Fitzgerald said. "There is unrest out there, and people are very eager to enter into the process and use their votes to bring change and revitalization in this county. You can feel it in the neighborhoods. People are talking about it. It looks like we are in for a historic series of elections in this county."

Few would question that the nearly record increase in voter registrations in Knox County is a positive development, regardless of what people's opinions (and there are many) happen to be about the recent crisis in government there related to the term limits fiasco. If it takes a crisis of statecraft to bring about greater public interest in local government, so be it. It is an open question, however, whether an increase in the number of people registered to vote will lead to an increase in bona fide voters.

Some of these voters doubtless live in the City of Knoxville and if they were going to demonstrate responsible voting behavior, many would have turned out for the Knoxville mayoral election in force-but they didn't do that, and early voting in the Knoxville City Council seat that is actually contested looks completely abysmal.

I'm not pointing all of this out to be a party pooper and say that these dramatic increases in voter registrations in Knox County (or anywhere else) are meaningless. Some of the new registrants undoubtedly are voting and more will come forward in the weeks and months ahead to exercise their franchise. We should continue to encourage voters to come forward and do their duty and new registrants to vote for the first time. The News-Sentinel and Michael Fitzgerald may both be overestimating the scale of turnout if they base their notions on increases in voter registration over a four year period. We can expect turnout to be higher than normal next year because there is a presidential election.

The test of whether the rise in voter registrations mean a real increase in interest in local affairs in Knox County will be the whether the level of voter turnout is significantly higher than normal in a presidential year, and then whether voters turn out in force two years later when the entire Knox County Commission is up for a vote. Until the numbers come out after Election Day, all the discussion about the increase in voter registration making a major impact on Knox County Government is nothing more than idle talk.



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